On March 31, 2017, Mayor Bill De Blasio promised to close down Rikers Island. In a press conference at City Hall, according to the NY Daily News, the mayor said, “It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen.” In an effort to close down Rikers, Mayor De Blasio said that he would open smaller scattered jails around New York City.
Rikers Island is a microcosm for the larger prison industrial complex.
Because Rikers Island houses more than 7,500 inmates a day, a lot of money is brought in to politicians in power. Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Correction Department, proposed a plan to close Rikers Island 10 years ago. The New York Times reported of his plan, “They would feature natural lighting, air-conditioning, the latest security technology…A glossy rendering depicted that 1,700-bed jail fully integrated into the community, with well-dressed New Yorkers strolling past a Boss, a United Colors of Benetton and a Trader Joe’s.”
At first the idea of closing Rikers appealed to people, but once these same people realized that small jails could be popping up in their neighborhoods, they quickly turned around to oppose and quash his plan.
The conditions at Rikers Island are inhumane. It is overcrowded, many correctional officers misuse their power, and almost 80% of those in Rikers have not been convicted of a crime. Bill Moyers’ documentary RIKERS highlights many of the injustices in an honest but shocking way, using the real accounts of former inmates.
Is closing Rikers actually feasible? Will it actually change the prison system or will another Rikers open to replace the current one?
A new campaign, #CLOSErikers, is committed to reducing the number of people being detained in the first place. One of the main issues with Rikers Island is that is holds many people convicted of minor crimes or not even of a crime at all. Legislation must be past to decrease the punishment for minor non-violent offenses. There also must be initiative to create bail reform. If someone is arrested or called into court and if the person cannot pay bail he or she must pay 10% of that bail amount called a “premium” to a bail bondsman to go free. The individual may also have to pay additional fees which go to court, the prosecutor, the public defender, and the sheriff totaling 3% of the bail amount. These fees are all non-refundable even if you make every court appearance or are not even convicted of a crime. If you cannot pay these fines or make all your court appearances you can wind up in jail, where you cannot maintain your job, support your family, or pay the fees that got you there in the first place. So it really becomes an economic system that if you don’t have the resources for you can remain incarcerated.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to securing equal justice for every citizen, created a video that accurately describes the need for bail reform.
We should support the movement to close down Rikers Island, but we must also understand that simply closing down one jail will not create all of the systemic reform that is necessary within the criminal justice system. We must also address policing and the over-policing of communities of color. We must address all white juries and the need for lawyer money. There is a lot to be done, but it must start somewhere.
There is a rally to #CLOSErikers at City Hall. Check the #CLOSErikers website for more information and see how you can get involved.